Archive for Eugene Lourie

Chambermaid of Secrets

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2013 by dcairns

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Burgess Meredith (above, left) must be the actor most associated with author Octave Mirbeau — he stars in the Amicus horror compendium TORTURE GARDEN, which admittedly owes nothing but its title to Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des Supplices, but he also scripted and appears in Jean Renoir’s film of THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID.

Renoir and Meredith do right by Mirbeau’s unfilmable (but filmed several times: once by Bunuel) book, by making a film which one cannot conceive of as a Hollywood product. Paulette Goddard, who has turned hard-hearted after unspecified mistreatment by men and by the upper classes, enters her new position determined to find a rich husband and leave behind the world of manual toil. Immediately we sense trouble, as the mistress of the house is Judith Anderson. The master is kindly duffer Reginald Owen in a Boudou beard, playing a dreamy sort of Lord Emsworth dolt. Further eccentricity is provided by neighbour Burgess Meredith himself, who eats flowers and throws stones (but never the other way around — stones have no flavour).

Meredith seems like possible husband material, which shows how hard up Paulette is. He has money salted away, but when Paulette’s attentions over-excite him and he accidentally kills his beloved pet squirrel, she starts to suspect that being his fiancée might be fraught with peril.

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Does this sound like a Hollywood movie so far?

Then the young master comes home from his debauches, and he is Hurd Hatfield, which means that Paulette is sharing house with Dorian Gray, Mrs Danvers, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen played the latter three). With the Penguin living just across the way. Anderson/Danvers sets about pimping out the new maid to persuade her psycho son, who is the apple of her eye but who despises her fervently, to stick around the family pile.

Hatfield is a surly invalid who reads the grimmer bits of Shakespeare (“Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres…”), clearly meant to suggest Sade. To Paulette, he seems a potential mark, but his mood swings and unhealthy relationship with mother tend to rule him out. Then a new prospect emerges from an unlikely quarter. Valet Francis Lederer (from CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY and PANDORA’S BOX) proposes buying a bar with loot raised by stealing the silverware, and Paulette is amenable.

The film’s only turn towards conventional Hollywood morality is Paulette’s last-minute conversion to righteousness after Lederer stoops to murder. Even then, the conventional romantic solution is undercut by an earlier, throwaway moment when Owen, reading the Paris newspaper, remarks upon the latest case of murder — WOMAN MUTILATED! — and we ask herself, who has been in Paris? Why has the line been placed there? What are you implying, Jean Renoir? As the happy couple head off into the sunset, we recall that both of them had been in Paris not long before…

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Bottom-scraping indie Benedict Bogeaus produced, and the film has a cheap feel — Eugene Lourie’s sets don’t convince, nor do they create a particularly alluring sense of fakery, and to be honest Renoir doesn’t do the best job of concealing the threadbare cyclorama. But he does whirl the camera about with some brio at the violent climax, and this may be the one US film on his CV that hits the notes of unsettling, tone-clashing weirdness that we find in some of his French films (the Lourie-designed RULES OF THE GAME, for one). Hurd Hatfield believed that Paulette was all wrong for the movie due to her “cheap-sounding” American accent, but in a movie where Lederer’s German and Owen’s English accents both represent French characters, where should one look for a barometer of linguistic authenticity? As with CLUNY BROWN (Owen’s second role as lord of the manor that year), Brits above stairs and Yanks below makes a feasible and not too distracting scheme.

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Francis L has a special spike for slowly murdering geese. Because that’s how he rolls.

We rather loved it. We watched SWAMP WATER the following night, and that one is a proper terrific film, but DOAC is bananas, the kind of thing where you can’t figure out why it exists but you’re glad it does. Fiona and I recognized it as a kindred spirit.

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FC3: A new definition of the word “accident”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2009 by dcairns

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I wonder if these pieces are just going to keep getting shorter? It seems like a good way to get a conversation, with a brief set of musings rather than any attempt at thoroughness.

In any case, it would be hard for me to write more on this movie, since I’ve just seen it twice, once five years ago and once just now, which has sort of refreshed my memory of it and revitalized the questions that buzzed in my mind the first time I saw it. Without answering them.

“If France were destroyed tomorrow and nothing remained but this film, the whole country and its civilization could be reconstructed from it.” ~ Richard Roud.

I’m not even sure how to describe this one. Renoir said his intention was to make to make “an agreeable film” which would nevertheless serve as a critique of a society he considered absolutely rotten. The fact that the film was made in 1939, and was roundly detested by critics and audiences at the time, suggests all kinds of resonances. And I think looking for them is one of the mistakes I made in my viewing, because on first sight the film isn’t obviously allegorical and the moments of critique appear scattered thinly. It is important to situate the film in the context of pre-war France, but you can put that aside until the conclusion, where it unavoidably washes in. The movie’s thematic purpose really all kicks in at the end, when you can look back and see a bit more clearly what the film is doing in this regard. But I suspect a first viewing (and I’ve really had two first viewings, since there was such a long gap between them) should concentrate more on the surface.

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On the surface, then, what we have is a country house comedy with an odd tone — the wildlife holocaust in the middle, where Renoir’s camera pauses to observe the death throes of a rabbit in minute detail, certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing. Real death is always a tricky thing on screen. I don’t generally like it, unless the camera has captured a specific death that would have happened anyway, as in LE SANG DES BETES. But I would willingly eat any of the animals slaughtered in Renoir’s film, so I don’t think I have any moral ground to stand on. I do worry about Renoir using this scene as an indictment of the upper classes, when it’s all been staged at his command. But I guess the intention is different. So this is one thing I’d like to hear about.

The other big one is — does anyone find this film funny? It follows the structure of a country house comedy, with Renoir citing Moliere and Mozart as influences (“if you’re picking a master, choose a plump one”), and delivers this bitter aftertaste and social critique, but could one argue that critics and audiences were right to turn away in the sense that the results should contain a few good laughs along the way? Maybe it’s just me.

But having watched the whole thing, this objection does seem to lose all force: Renoir is using farce structure and comic stylisation to tell a tragic story in a different way. The fact that there are only a few barely audible smiles along the way doesn’t really matter. It could be argued that the comic style serves as a metaphor for the frivolous way the characters see their existence, and for us to laugh would be to miss the point.

So that’s two major talking point. I’ll add a third: Marcel Dalio’s eyebrows.

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And a fourth: the blocking and camera direction, which I could really appreciate even on these isolated viewings. Farce is notoriously hard to do onscreen, as Richard Lester has observed — the laugh depends on a character going in one door and coming out another, so the minute the director cuts or moves the camera, the audience forgets which door is which and the laugh is gone. The spacial unity of the stage is normally a prerequisite. Renoir makes a virtue out of confusion, and even a theme out of it: his camera is constantly saying to us, with an exaggerated Gallic shrug, “But there is too much going on.”

We might be focused on one grouping, and another set of characters will dash through the frame, engrossed in their own plotline. Or we will swish-pan off one confrontation onto another, sometimes arriving a second before the frame is filled with bustling action, sometimes alighting on a subplot in media res. In the Danse Macabre sequence this reaches a dizzying zenith of choreographic excellence achieving Pure Cinema in the midst of the theatrical.

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This kind of thing benefits enormously from actors who can move, and here the standouts for me were Dalio and his majordome Corneille, played by Eddy Debray, who barely registers as a character because he’s so devoted to the task at hand, but is extremely nimble and elegant, packing his entire characterisation into a few clipped gestures. The way he snaps his fingers for help when young Jackie faints, before her body has even hit the floor… suave.

Editing by Mme Huguet and “Marguerite.” That’s Marguerite Renoir.

Production design by Max Douy and Eugene Lourie, whose participation makes Renoir a single handshake away from GORGO.

Assistant director, Henri-Cartier Bresson. I think you might be wasting this man’s talents, Jean. Ever consider giving him a camera?

Cinematography by whoever was around. Including the brother, but hey, it’s a talented family. How Papa Jean attained such a unified look and such dynamic results with such a disparate pack of cameramen I can’t figure.

Costumes by Coco Chanel — OK, Fiona will definitely want to watch this.

STOP PRESS — I show the film to Fiona, who enjoys it greatly, more than I did first time, and this time I get a lot more from it. I also find it pretty funny. Without attempting to be exhaustive (impossible), I can now say a bit more. Second time through, you gain the ability to admire the construction as it plays out, magnificently. I’m more and more impressed with Paulette Dubost as Lisette, the maid (Blimey! She’s still alive!)

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Fiona becomes curious about pre-war Chanel, which is not her area of expertise. We agree though that Mila Parély has the best outfits in this. Fiona reckons that Coco would have enjoyed all that hunting garb since she always liked adapting men’s tailoring to women’s outfits.

I haven’t even talked about Renoir himself, as actor. The epitome of the elegant fat man, but with more punch and vigour than you’d expect, and more than ought to be compatible with grace and sensitivity, but it’s all there, and all turned up to eleven. Why on Earth didn’t he act more, in other people’s films if not his own? Perhaos as a result of the failure of this one. He obviously liked getting in front of the cameras though, since he squeezed himself into things like LE TESTAMENT DU DR CORDELIER, and filmed intros to several of his ’30s films.

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And Julien Carette as Marceau the poacher is an interesting figure — the most confident, socially mobile and knowingly amoral character in the film. I’m fascinated by his easy relationship with Dalio — which counts for nothing in the end, he’s no more than an amusement to his master. Carette is very appealing under most circumstances, but utterly revolting whenever he flirts. The sleazy simper technique: what woman could resist? It doesn’t wholly surprise me to learn that Carette was burned to death by his own nylon shirt.

Fiona mentions GOSFORD PARK, and it’s an interesting comparison. Altman often made himself unpopular with audiences by pushing tragedy and comedy into uncomfortable proximity, which is exactly what LA REGLE does. Of course, this film is incredibly tight and pre-planned, although Renoir was clearly very smart about incorporating chance and improvisation into his machinations. Altman’s successful films tend to start with a tight structure that no amount of furious demolition can shake, then he lets the players pull in every direction at once while he cocks his head and listens to the music of the narrative popping its rivets. A WEDDING is another obvious comparison here, but that one’s purer comedy.

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And I’m totally convinced that the last shot, shadows passing along a wall, the figures hidden by a balustrade, is evoking Plato’s shadows in the allegory of the cave. Anybody confirm this? Something about mistaking shadows for reality could be a theme here, and at any rate it’s a good Shadowplay note to finish on.

Jeremy, The Colossus of New York

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2009 by dcairns

Part of my quest to “See Reptilicus and Die,” that is, to see every film depicted in Denis Gifford’s ’70s-era study of monster films, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. AKA The Holy Bible.

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THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK is produced by William “News — on the March!” Alland and directed by Eugene Lourie, a duo with considerable form in the monster/sci-fi/trash field. But Alland was also the voice of the newsreel in CITIZEN KANE and the intrepid, chinless Thompson, newsreel reporter on the trail of Rosebud, “dead or alive,” while Lourie was a successful production designer who worked for Ophuls in Germany and Renoir in America and India. As producer and director, the two men were, shall we say, less distinguished. Lourie kicked off with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which is a Ray Harryhausen monster film and therefore we want to love it, but it’s pretty prosaic when placed alongside the beautiful Ray Bradbury story that “inspired” it. I’d like to have seen the filmmakers start the film with an exact rendering of Bradbury’s beautiful (overwritten to hell yes but beautiful) The Fog Horn, before taking off into their own story, the way Siodmak’s THE KILLERS starts off with Hemingway and then goes a-wandering. Lourie also tackled THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, which I reviewed here, and GORGO, a favourite from my childhood but not, I repeat not, in any way, an actual good movie.

Alland’s track record is patchy too: I have some regard for his work with Jack Arnold, like THE SPACE CHILDREN or even CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but not much can really be said in defense of THE MOLE PEOPLE, except that it made good fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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Fiend Without a Anything.

But THE COLOSSUS has more to its credit than expected. Delightfully, the opening seems like a nod to CITIZEN KANE, with a film-within-a-film (they should’ve got Alland in to narrate it in stentorian fashion), which is an early clue to traces of wit. The title sequences, with suitably gigantic lettering rising in front of the UN Building, casting reflections in the waters, accompanied by an excellent Van Cleave piano score, also raises expectations. If the solo piano was chosen for economical reasons, as seems likely (a late entry in Alland’s monster cycle, the movie is short on SFX and production values are generally slight), the solution is a brilliant one, the pounding of the keys creating a paradoxically epic effect, evoking silent movies, PEEPING TOM and Rachmaninoff.

What follows is fairly clunking set-up stuff, as we meet brilliant scientist Jeremy Spensser (why the sstrange sspelling?), played by not-brilliant actor Ross Martin, and his jealous non-brilliant brother Henry Spensser (I guess the sspelling is handy to distinguish him from ERASERHEAD’s protagonist), and doting, brilliant scientist dad William Spensser. Also Jeremy’s very 1950s son, who just hadto be called Billy, and his bland spouse, whom Fiona christened Chesty McTitwife after seeing her in her nightgown, jiggling. She is in fact Mala Powers, which is the perfect B-movie name, but in this movie she simply doesn’t get to do the kind of things an actress called Mala Powers should get to do.

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Chesty McTitwife.

(WHAT AN ACTRESS CALLED MALA POWERS SHOULD GET TO DO: black magic; seducing schoolboys; piracy on the high seas; night club chanteusery; mannequin in a classy story; nude modelling for neurasthenic sculptors; stick-ups and heists; gangster’s molling; gangster’s mauling; jungle cult goddess stuff; whip-wielding (assorted); transforming into black panther/snake/killer sloth; alien dominatrix activities; Satan in high heels.)

(Also — a possible relative of Mala’s turns up in the film, named, and I kid you not, MAX POWER.)

Anyhow, Jeremy is such a brilliant scientist he promptly runs in front of a truck, chasing little Billy’s toy aeroplane, and becomes dead. But his grieving dad isn’t ready to let go yet, and believes that the contribution his son can make to humanity is so great, it justifies extreme measures ~

Very ROBOCOP. I love the sound effects, especially the truly fierce electric crackling  — and the inaudible lines. Thelma Schnee’s script is somewhat fatuous when it plays things straight, but becomes evocative and intriguing whenever there’s muddle. For instance, she can’t decide if Jeremy the Colossus is evil, insane, or lacks a soul. The other characters do talk about his soulless nature, recalling the subtitle of Edison’s FRANKENSTEIN (LIFE WITHOUT SOUL), but Jeremy the Colossus seems all too spiritual, suffering from separation from his family, and anxiety and shame over his new appearance. I do think dad and brother could have paid a bit more attention to styling their robot creation. The chunky head, emotionless face and glowing eyes are, perhaps, essential design features but the weird flowing robe is an odd touch. Do robots need clothes? If so, do they have to be special robes. Who is his tailor?

If only Pop Spensser had bought his colossal robot son a selection of casual daywear, a lot of people might not have been death-rayed.

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“Are you a real giant?”

The script can’t quite decide what to do with its Colossus, now that he’s assembled. Jeremy (the Colossus) discovers he has second sight, but this doesn’t lead anywhere. He finds an interest in eugenics, declaring that useless people should be destroyed, but then he forgets about this and starts playing with his son, in scenes reminiscent of FRANKENSTEIN (deliberately so, I think). This seems ironic, since little Billy is about as useless as can be.

Jeremy’s dithering is what gives the film its feeling of being packed with ideas, when it’s perhaps more accurate to say it’s packed with loose ends. It does seem more than usually suitable for remaking, though — but ROBOCOP did kind of go there already with its reanimation scene (featuring POV shots interrupted by static) and the pounding footsteps of Officer Murphy are very much like those of Jeremy (well, one pounding footstep is perhaps much like another). A weird effect that accompanies those footsteps: sometimes Jeremy appears to by slightly speeded-up. This gives his walk a jerky, mechanical quality that’s eerily effective, while at the same time, a bit crap. Hey, I think I just wrote the tagline for this movie.

Finally, the Colossal Jeremy, having killed his traitorous sleaze of a brother, heads off to the city that doesn’t sleep and starts randomly zapping people in the UN. Why did they equip him with a death ray anyway? That’s asking for trouble. Hilariously, and somehow frighteningly, his first victim can be seen lying dead BEFORE he zaps her. Cut to Jeremy, death rays beaming from his eyes, cut back to the frightened onlookers, and suddenly the victim is standing up, only to get hit by the death ray and fall down into the same position she was last seen lying in.

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Dead Again.

THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK was edited by Floyd Knudtson. I suggest you write to him to point out his blunder. Maybe it’s not too late.

Floyd Knudtson, c/o The Edward Deezen Home for Idiots, Schenectady, New York.